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The Many Functions of MIDI DATA

by Tweak

Ok, dudes, you're doing good if you are still with me.  By now you should be aware that MIDI is something you cannot afford to ignore, particularly in this day and age.  I've put together this chart that sums it all up pretty succinctly. 

midi functions

Capabilities of MIDI Data

Controlling Sound devices like keyboards, module, samplers

The main function of MIDI us to send note and controller data to and from keyboard, modules and samplers to make them sound. Because MIDI data is compact in size its easy for a computer to manipulate it.  You can easily have 50 tracks of midi instruments running in a song if you have enough ports and channels.  In the sequencer, midi tracks can be copied, looped, transposed, doubled, stretched and edited to fine detail.  You hit a wrong note?  No problem, edit it to the proper value. You have a great idea but your timing is off?  No problem.  Simply apply a quantize template and your notes will lock to a grid or a groove.  You don't have to be a good keyboard player to make excellent sounding compositions.  Simply correct the tracks till they sing for you.  In the sequencer, every element of the MIDI stream can be modified.  You can call up a track and edit it on a musical stave like the "old" composers used to or on hi-tech grids, or in a list of events. 

General MIDI. 

Most basic synths follow a specification called General MIDI or GM.  This protocol specifies what programs (instruments) are available for the 16 channels.  Drums are typically on channel 10.  You can assign the rest the way you want.  The basic GM set consists of 128 programs which always have the same program number.  Piano is always program 1.  34 is always Picked Bass, 67 is always Baritone Sax.  Ok, Here's the Chart of GM sounds. Because there is this common reference, any file you make with GM can be played on any computer or synth that follows the GM spec.  That's what a MIDIFILE is.  Its a sequence made up of tracks filled with timing information and NOTE ON/OFF information.

A "MIDI" or Midifile has no audio data again.  It only has note and controller and time data.  But because manufacturers follow this standard spec, it sounds the same, or similar, on different soundcards.  Its possible to do a great composition with GM, but the limits are in the relatively small palette of 128 sounds. But its an excellent way to get started.  After a while you might want better, more varied, or more specific sounds--that's when you know its time to move on to standalone modules that give you hundreds, often thousands of instruments, or focus on specific genre's like dance sounds, orchestral, hip hop, world fusion, R&B, etc.


Selecting Programs, Banks and Instruments

As we just saw, the GM bank has 128 instruments, or presets. If you get a bigger better, synth, you get more banks.  My nearly maxed out Triton Rack for example has 16 banks of 128 instruments, or 2,048 instruments to choose from.  My Pro 53 softsynth has 512 presets in 4 banksThanks to the Program change command I can select any instrument I want with the mouse from my sequencer.  Now imagine the full MIDI rig with several softsynths, virtual drum machines and a good hardware synth.  Thousands of sounds, any type of drum kit you want, all freely assignable to your MIDI tracks.  I have been using a large MIDI rig for a long time and have never exhausted the possibilities.

The program change commands are not limited to synths, but can also be used to switch programs on effects boxes (such as reverb, delay, harmonizers, etc).  Many studio devices can be switched internally by program changes.  There are MIDI features on automated mixers, amp modelers, patchbays, even some compressors.


selecting a synth in sonar

Note: By selecting the bank number and preset on the Pro 53, I have access to 512 sounds.  Some hardware synths like the Fantom can hold thousands of sounds and in some of my soft samplers, for example, I have over 10,000 sounds. 

Virtual Mixer Automation with a Control Surface

MIDI data is also used to control software mixers in the sequencer and is sometimes used to control hardware digital mixers as well.   MIDI data can automate volume, position, effects sends, and even the parameters of hardware and software synthesizers.  Using MIDI CCs you can turn the dials on your synths and record the knob movement.  When you overdub 5 times it is like having 5 hands controlling the knobs on your synth.  If you "almost" had the tweak perfect, you can go in the editors and edit the CCs with exacting detail. 


Synchronization among several studio devices to Tempo or Timecode

Later on we'll get into synchronization such as MIDI clock, Midi clock with SPP, Midi Time Code (MTC) and Midi Machine Code (MMC).  I don't won't to bog you with these now, just know it happens!  Here it is if you can't wait.  Just know that it is MIDI that keeps all your machines working together at the same tempo and in sync with the computer's time.


Sound Development and MIDI :

OK, all you homeboys who think that MIDI is "old" and not as cool as hot audio loops and beats take note:  Most commercial loops are built with MIDI data controlling digital samplers.  The true and authentic tweakhead and groovemaster either uses MIDI to make their loops or has such impeccable timing they just record it cold.  Of course you could buy and use store-bought loops, but you'd be restricted to using other people's sounds and stuff.  Get a sampler, makes some noises, edit to perfection with MIDI, grooving, quantizing, transposing and you are 100% originally you! Record the output and edit the sample and you just made your own audio loop. That's how the true tweaks do it.

Also consider sound effects for film, TV commercials, radio spots.  With MIDI you can stack of sounds, samples, and instruments to make huge effects.  Using MIDI is one method for those who make sounds and music for a living.



Midi data in a "piano roll" editor

A view of Logic's Matrix Editor.  All sequencer's have a similar editor that allows for exacting placement of notes along a timing grid.  Extremely elaborate sequences are possible because the sequencer only sends note triggers to your synth, not audio data.

Ok, lets let the pros back in but never let these guys intimidate though, OK?

Summing up

Don't think for a minute that MIDI is not a serious musical tool.  Nearly all TV/film scores today make use of MIDI.  Many top 40 songs are made with sequencers in home studios and converted to professional audio using the same process we just talked about.  MIDI is the core building block on which to build a totally original musical masterpiece on a computer.  When you have it working properly, with a good synth, your musical output is truly only limited by your musical imagination.  As we go deeper into understanding the modern recording studio, I'll show you more on how MIDI data is used to control your virtual mixer.  For now, think of it as a data pathway for connecting and controlling many studio devices.

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Cool Quote:

"Truly fertile Music, the only kind that will move us, that we shall truly appreciate, will be a Music conducive to Dream, which banishes all reason and analysis. One must not wish first to understand and then to feel. Art does not tolerate Reason."

Albert Camus (1913–1960), French Philosopher in “Essay on Music", 1932


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More on MIDI by Tweak

MIDI Basics
How to buy a Keyboard: What you need to know
Chart: The Many Functions of MIDI DATA
All about MIDI interfaces
Keyboard Controllers
Rack mount Synth Modules


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